Why Bother Writing More Than 140 Characters?

A few years after my exploratory dips into writing, I came of age at the very same time that updating social networks and engaging constantly with a screen became part of a young person’s routine. I waddled through my formative years with one foot in the “boredom” that Feller describes and one foot in distraction.

Despite a particular hatred of literature class and some teachers’ assertions that I lacked talent for writing, a 16-year-old version of myself felt compelled to explore her feelings through the written word.

Why? Composing music, painting, and dancing required training and materials I didn’t have. At the very least, I was literate and had access to both pen and paper. And few other mediums could ensure a teenage girl, as long as she is careful, privacy.

At first, my writing was self centered. I chronicled typical teenage disappointments: being ignored by boys, feeling unsure about the shape of my body, and wondering more and more what I wanted from friendships with other girls. Later, I learned that I could use imagery to camouflage my confessionals from people who weren’t meant to read them. After a time, the effort became pleasurable and comforting; I could manipulate my surroundings by writing about them. When I realized that the structure of a sentence could wield power and even impose order on a world that made absolutely no sense to me, I sparked in myself an interest in literature unrelated to what I was learning in school. I embarked on an education of my own, both voraciously reading and writing everything my teachers would never assign.

I don’t often think about my roots as a writer, but an article called “The Reader and Technology“, recently published by Granta, made me wonder if my interest in writing had anything to do with boredom and if future generations, protected perhaps from boredom, will be able to experience the call to write.

Toby Litt admits, “If the computer games which exist now had existed back in 1979 I would not have read any books, I think; I would not have seen writing as an adequate entertainment…Similarly, I find it difficult to understand why any eleven-year-old of today would be sufficiently bored to turn inward for entertainment”.

A few years after my exploratory dips into writing, I came of age at the very same time that updating social networks and engaging constantly with a screen became part of a young person’s routine. I waddled through my formative years with one foot in the “boredom” that Feller describes and one foot in distraction.

My writing, which at first came naturally, sometimes began to feel like a chore. Many times, I regretted the hours I spent sitting in front of a computer chatting on Facebook or looking through photos posted by some boy I liked. Blogging became important to me because it allowed me to continue writing – perhaps not with depth but with consistency – in those brief moments between distractions, when I didn’t have time for sustained thought, the prerequisite for writing.

I easily could have abandoned writing, dismissing it as an exercise that requires too much effort and dedicated focus in a world that offers too much distraction. However, I think what made me immune, to a certain extent, from distraction is that writing was an essential part of the story I told myself to help me figure out who I was and am. Despite my uncertainty about everything else, I knew what I loved – writing – and I would need to remain true to that or risk losing myself.

I feel lucky to have had the chance to begin to explore writing before social networking because I was able to glimpse what writing could do for me. At least I could understand what it meant to write in a world that was just a little less saturated with information.

Even so, I have hope for future generations of writers and disagree with Litt’s idea that an eleven-year old today could never be bored enough. Though not bombarded with as much technology, that 16-year-old version of myself could have been and was distracted by thousands of other pursuits: shopping, chatting on the phone, listening to music, making ice cream sundaes with her best friend, worrying about what a boy thinks, and reading magazines.

Distractions have always and will always exist for those who do not want to confront themselves. Some people will find looking inward and exploring the self a worthy pursuit no matter what new video game has just been released. And I believe that the people who surrender themselves to the sometimes terrifyingly unfamiliar landscape of the mind never really have any other choice other than to pay attention to that gnawing “boredom” and follow it. If they can continue to do so in the midst of distraction, then perhaps their art will be all the more richer for it.

Whether or not those people will find an audience is a topic I don’t yet think I’m brave enough to explore.

(Photo by cambodia4kidsorg)

Beware Writers Who Make You Feel Inferior

Some contemporary personal essays and memoirs that I’ve been reading possess a quality that annoys me deeply, but I’ve been having trouble articulating that quality and would like to try to explore it here.

“There’s nothing dramatic about self-inflicted crisis.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement, written by PhD student and blogger Joseph Kugelmass, and how it relates to the genre of creative nonfiction, which I’ve been exploring lately. Some contemporary personal essays and memoirs that I’ve been reading possess a quality that annoys me deeply, but I’ve been having trouble articulating that quality and would like to try to explore it here.

Kugelmass was writing in response to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, which I had been reading but couldn’t continue reading because, despite my best hopes, it possessed the quality that I’m going to try to articulate. I also had the same reaction to a personal essay titled “Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner“, recently published by The Atlantic. And just to show you that I don’t simply hate the genre of creative nonfiction, I would like to demonstrate how essays like Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” and Mark Doty’s “The Unwriteable” can tackle extremely personal subject matter without annoying the reader.

I first became a fan of Strayed’s work while she was writing under the pseudonym of “Sugar” in an advice column for The Rumpus. I was so excited to finally learn her real identity, which she revealed earlier this year, and even more excited to learn that her memoir, which describes many experiences alluded to in her column, was being published.

I purchased Wild despite reading the New York Times review, which was positive but not convincing. The reviewer himself admits, “There were very frightening moments, but nothing particularly extraordinary happened to her.” I decided the problem was simply that I was reading the excerpts out of context and that the summary could do it no justice. I purchased the book and read the first 50 pages quickly and voraciously, noting that I had read such a book before (the first 50 pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are quite similar).

The way Strayed reacts to her mother’s death, which is the beginning of her own story, made me feel like I don’t love my own mother enough; she is so completely and utterly shattered by the death of her mother that she cheats on her husband, shoots heroin, and sells all her belongings to spend a summer backpacking on the Pacific Coast Trail. Placed in her situation, no doubt would I be profoundly sad, but would I go to any of these extremes? Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think I would behave so destructively. Does that mean I don’t care enough?

Of the decision to backpack, Strayed writes:

I would walk that line, I decided — or at least as much of it as I could in about a hundred days. I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband, and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been in my life. Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men.

What I hear in the narrator’s voice are self-pity, indifference, and a tiny bit of boastfulness. And why not? Why would the reader want to read about a completely purposeless journey? Where is the self reflection? Where is the hard work of growth? Where is the humor? Despite some of the action – sex, encounters with wild animals, bruised toes – , the memoir lacks drama because it relies on self-imposed conflict but doesn’t bring perspective to it. Writes Kugelmass:

I could wake up tomorrow, empty seven dollars in quarters into my pockets, and try to walk to Reno. It would be perilous. I could easily die. But it wouldn’t make a great story, and neither does Wild….Wild is the most self-aggrandizing tale of trauma that I’ve read in many years. Yes, it’s horrible to suffer abuse and poverty, but that does not explain or excuse every single unethical act an adult chooses to perform. People who think it does become abusers themselves. Has Strayed ever met a junkie or an adulterer who didn’t have a sob story? I certainly never have.

Kugelmass’ insight could teach a writer interested in crafting a personal essay or memoir how to write about personal experience in a way that doesn’t alienate the reader. In the midst of my thinking about this subject, I stumbled upon another piece of writing that inspired the same gut reaction I had while reading Wild.

I originally started reading John Fram’s “Odd Blood: Serodiscordancy, or, Life With an HIV-Positive Partner” because I was fascinated by the subject matter. However, like Strayed’s memoir, the essay made me feel like I’m incapable of loving another person. Would I stay with my partner if I found out he was HIV positive? I don’t know. I especially don’t know what I would do if I had only been with that person for less than a year, which is the case in the essay.

Connecting the observations I had about Wild with the observations I had about the HIV essay, I discovered that I’m wary of writers who write about personal experience in a way that pushes the reader away. While reading both essays, I felt like I wasn’t X enough, like I wasn’t human enough to know what these writers meant.

When the writer romanticizes experience, when he or she fails to put enough time and space between him/herself and the piece of writing, and when he or she isn’t ready to fully let it go, to make it not only personal but now universal, then the writer alienates the reader. The writer should have 1) purpose (why tell it now?), 2) perspective, and 3) a desire not just to tell the story but also the hope that the reader can learn something from it.

One of my favorite examples of an essay that’s extremely introspective yet not at all indulgent is called “The Unwriteable” by Mark Doty, originally published in the spring 2012 issue of Granta. I actually heard Doty read the essay at a bar in Manhattan before I had a chance to buy the copy and read it. Rarely does a piece of contemporary creative nonfiction make me feel like it took the author courage to write it, but I approached Doty after the reading and told him he was courageous.

He writes, “I have been a masked man – not for a long time now, but there was a period in my life, in my twenties, when I – how to say it? – lived in hiding, lived a double life, was sexually duplicitous? All problematic terms. I was married to a woman and having sex with a man.” Like Strayed, Doty explores adultery and , and like Fram, he includes the theme of homosexuality. On one hand, a reader could argue that Doty’s conflict, like Strayed’s and Fram’s, is self-inflicted. Still exploring and discovering his sexuality, Doty cheats on his wife. Why should we feel sorry for him?

Doty continues,

We got drunk on Scotch, talked for hours in a state of increasing enrapturement, and made out in my car. ‘Made out’ is deceptively casual. I think it must have felt momentous to me: I must have felt I was doing something I was supposed to do. These statements are speculative because I feel, in some sense, I wasn’t there: I was giving myself up to a current, I wasn’t making a decision, I was being carried in the direction the world intended….

Naivite isn’t the best excuse, but how can we fault him for being so honest with us?

Another example of a deeply personal essay that still manages to engage the reader is Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”. Didion writes about her experiences first moving to Manhattan in her twenties.

That first night I opened my window on the bus into town and watched for the skyline, but all I could see were the wastes of Queens and big signs that said MIDTOWN TUNNEL THIS LANE and then a flood of summer rain (even that seemed remarkable and exotic, for I had come out of the West where there was no summer rain), and for the next three days I sat wrapped in blankets in a hotel room air conditioned to 35 degrees and tried to get over a cold and a high fever. It did not occur to me to call a doctor, because I knew none, and although it did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young?

That last question, so simple, is a line I consider one of the most memorable of all that I have ever read. Her tone is self deprecating yet sympathetic at the same time. The reader can tell that the narrator is a woman who has done the hard work of growing, of finding perspective, of being able to look back at her former self with both awe and pity.

Many people have asked the question of Strayed’s memoir: why now? Why is she choosing to write about and publish her experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail now, 17 years later? I think a good personal essay or memoir doesn’t make the reader ask that question. The narrator’s reason for telling the story, no matter how far away he or she has moved from the triggering event, should be apparent.

In “The Unwriteable”, Doty answers that question directly. “Why write this now? Because Alex is dead, just this week, of cancer. My wife is years gone, and now him, and thus of the three of us I live to tell the untold tale, what I promised, at least tacitly, I wouldn’t say.”

Didion writes, “But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York.”

And in writing this blog post, I was hoping to explain to myself and possibly to others why some pieces of creative nonfiction alienate the reader and why others, despite similar subject matter and a deeply introspective tone, engage us and invite us to reconsider our own lives because we are all fundamentally the same.

(Photo by trix0r)

Your Author Photo Isn’t Cute Enough

Walking past a local bookstore, my boyfriend and I noticed a line of people beginning to form outside. So devoted were these people that they were sitting in lawn chairs or propping themselves up with backpacks. We peeked into the window to see who would be visiting the bookstore that day.

Walking past a local bookstore, my boyfriend and I noticed a line of people beginning to form outside. So devoted were these people that they were sitting in lawn chairs or propping themselves up with backpacks.

We peeked into the window to see who would be visiting the bookstore that day. Lauren Conrad, a television personality best known for her appearances on MTV’s Laguna Beach and The Hills, would be reading from and signing copies of her book The Fame Game.

I have nothing against Lauren Conrad. In fact, I think she’s rather cute and savvy. I thumbed through a copy of her book, on prominent display inside the bookstore. Though Conrad did strike me with her radiance emanating from her author photo, she didn’t exactly win me over with a plot centered around petty jealousy and words like “Botox” and “backstabbing”. On one hand, I’m charmed by her; on the other hand, I had to keep reminding myself that she’s not a writer, in the traditional sense.

By even considering buying her book and attending her reading just to catch a glimpse of her (I decided it wasn’t worth battling the crowd of adolescents), was I supporting what writer Chuck Klosterman refers to as the loss of a “middle class of writers”? In a recent interview with BULL Men’s Fiction, Klosterman admits, “What worries me is that the culture of the publishing industry is really going to polarize what books exist…And so the only kind of people who are going to write books are going to be those who are already rich and can write a book without an advance, or whoever is the new Kafka who writes because he loves it and has to.”

I reluctantly (only because I don’t want to agree) agree with Klosterman’s prediction. The only people receiving huge advances for their books are people who have already attained some kind of celebrity, whether through their non-writing career or because they’ve already written a best-selling blockbuster. On the opposite end of the spectrum, writers write without any hope for an advance, simply because writing is their passion. Can a balance exist?

Upon further inspection of the bookstore’s window, where readings are advertised, my boyfriend and I realized that about 90% of future visiting authors are people known for their celebrity, not for their writing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that none of the visiting “authors” actually wrote their books.

I find it rather discouraging that a bookstore doesn’t believe a reading series filled with writers could generate enough interest in the community. I was also very discouraged by the self-indulgent nature of the displayed books, many of them memoirs, which offer solipsistic stories that will matter only as long as that person’s reality show exists.

I don’t blame people for wanting to see a celebrity they admire, but the interest in celebrity-hood, which has spilled over magazine racks filled with tabloids, fuels the publishers’ incentive to keep publishing books by people who don’t write. I know that publishing is a business and that publishers need to sell books, but I wonder if these monolithic companies cave too much to consumers’ most guilty pleasures. Maybe if we didn’t make so many of these throw-away reads so accessible, publishers could spend time putting the talent of their marketing departments to work, trying to sell books that might be a little more difficult to sell.

Until then, writers everywhere will have to start going to the gym, getting their hair done on a regular basis, and trying to land a role in one of the many reality shows that networks like Bravo are constantly cooking.

(Photo by Ashley Cooper)

Everything Is Amazing for Five Minutes

I can think of some contemporary authors who have defined me as a writer and who have also defined the Generation Y-ers of the literary community, but I’m not sure any one piece of writing speaks for and represents the generation as a whole. Would you agree or disagree?

“Everything is amazing for five minutes,” said one of my colleagues, expressing worry about the possibility that future generations will have nothing to define them. Will anything matter longer than the length of time it takes to read an article on CNN or even Twitter?

As someone who is very concerned about the future not only of the publishing industry but also of the way we create and consume the written word, I tried to apply my colleague’s statement to writing. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, “Good writing may be the quintessential 21st century skill…Today people write as never before—texting, on blogs, with video cameras and cell phones, and, yes, even with traditional pen and paper. People write at home, at work, inside and out of school.” I have no doubt that being able to write well is a highly important skill, which, with time, will only become more and more essential.

However, I doubt that writers will continue to want to invest the time it takes to craft a well-written piece of writing when they know that readers can consume and forget that writing in a flash. Knowing how little the readers value the work, the writers will invest less effort, and the cycle will continue until we’ve evolved into a society filled with lazy writers and ungrateful readers.

My parents, who came of age in the 60s and early 70s, are members of the “baby boomer” generation, which was defined by beat, hippie, and feminist writing. Authors like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukoski, J.D. Salinger, Betty Friedan, and Erica Jong come to mind. I believe that most educated Americans, even if they don’t necessarily appreciate literature, have heard of at least one of those names and could probably pinpoint the time period when those authors wrote.

If you were to ask any educated American to name authors or works of writing that define Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (born between the late 70s and the late 80s), what texts would most people choose? I can think of some contemporary authors who have defined me as a writer and who have also defined the Generation Y-ers of the literary community, but I’m not sure any one piece of writing speaks for and represents the generation as a whole. Would you agree or disagree?

Why doesn’t our generation have any defining texts? Are books published today only worth the length of time they can remain trendy?

(Photo by Inti)

Violence as Narrative Drive in “The Hunger Games”

Every writer successfully crafting a narrative, just like any runner successfully crossing the finish line of a marathon, needs some kind of driving force. For a runner, that force might be years of training, headphones along with a good running playlist, and a carb-loaded meal eaten at just the right time.

“When you resort to violence to prove a point, you’ve just experienced a profound failure of imagination.” – Sherman Alexie

Every writer successfully crafting a narrative, just like any runner successfully crossing the finish line of a marathon, needs some kind of driving force. For a runner, that force might be years of training, headphones along with a good running playlist, and a carb-loaded meal eaten at just the right time.

Just like a runner, a writer can use tools and employ certain strategies to make the reader want to keep reading until the end; I call the thing that moves a narrative forward “narrative drive”. When I teach narrative drive to my creative writing students, I usually explain to them that a narrative can be driven by five different forces: plot, character, setting, form/language, or idea/concept.

A plot-driven story is any page-turner like a crime drama or mystery; think The DaVinci Code or Lord of the Rings. Examples of character-driven stories include The Catcher in the Rye or almost anything a student might read in a high school English Literature class. A setting-driven story is 1984 because the narrative depends on the fact that the world Orwell describes is so unlike the one where the reader lives. A book driven by form/language might be James Joyce’s Ulysses, and 1984 – in addition to be driven by setting – could also be driven by an idea/concept because of the way Orwell explores a dystopian future. As you can see, not all narratives are driven by just one force.

I’m especially interested in how best-selling authors like Suzanne Collins use narrative drive to their advantage, making books fly off the shelves. Excited to discover what makes The Hunger Games “tick”, I began reading it with an eye for its driving force.

Almost finished with the book, I have decided that the book is driven by a mix of plot and setting, with plot being the most dominant driving force. The book is indeed a page turner. However, the more I thought about what keeps making me want to turn the pages, the more I started to think about the violence very graphically described throughout the story. Did the violence, though cringe-worthy, make me want to keep reading? Violence is a plot device used in many plot-driven – especially crime and murder-mystery – stories.

When I first started reading The Hunger Games, I couldn’t help but think of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” (read it!), which describes a village’s annual lottery very similar to the one described in The Hunger Games. What’s different about Jackson’s story, however, is that the narrator describes no violence until the very end; still, the reader is compelled to keep reading from beginning to end because of all the mystery surrounding the premise of the lottery. In Collins’ novel, the violence is extremely explicit, and no secrets are kept from the reader. In fact, we keep reading because we want to indulge ourselves. We want to see the violence performed for our reading pleasure.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with including violence in a narrative, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Collins should have censored herself. However, I do believe that violence used as narrative drive can be rather perverse, a cheap trick. Even further, I believe violence used as narrative drive in a book marketed to young adults (American Library Association defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18; this just so happens to be the exact age group subject to violence in The Hunger Games) is clearly just a book-selling strategy, meaning the author is not as interested in exploring the idea of violence on a serious level as much as she’s interested in selling books.

In contrast, authors who use violence in their narratives but who also successfully use it to prove a greater, more important point include Dave Eggers (What Is the What) and Selah Saterstrom (The Meat and Spirit Plan). In the first novel, the narrator experiences violence in the form of war, while in the second work, the narrator experiences and inflicts violence upon herself. The descriptions are graphic and made me more uncomfortable than The Hunger Games ever could, but I’m still less disturbed by the violence in the first two books than by the violence in The Hunger Games because the violence in both those books is presented very carefully, with thoughtful and deep reflection done by the narrators. Violence described on a superficial level is simply gratuitous.

Many people would argue with me. I’ve heard readers search for deeper meaning in a book that I believe lacks meaning unless the reader is really trying to analyze the hell out of it. David Denby of The New Yorker writes, “Trying to explain the trilogy’s extraordinary popularity, critics and commentators have reached for metaphors. Perhaps it’s that the books offer a hyper-charged version of high school, an everyday place with incessant anxieties: constant judgment by adults; hazing, bullying, and cliques; and, finally, college-entry traumas. If you stretch the metaphor a bit, the books could be seen as a menacing fable of capitalism, in which an ethos of competition increasingly yields winner-take-all victors.” The thing is that readers don’t know what the violence is supposed to mean, and if people like Denby and I, who read and write seriously for a living, don’t know, then why should a 13-year-old know or even try to discover the reason for it?

Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I suspect that watching it will confirm my thoughts. The movie, edited slightly to reduce the amount of violence, loses the narrative drive, the very thing that holds The Hunger Games together and moves it forward. In his review of the film The Hunger Games, Denby writes, “[Gary] Ross consistently drains away all the tensions built into the grisly story—the growing wariness and suspicion that each teen-ager must feel as the number of those still alive begins to diminish, or the horror (or glee) that some of them experience as they commit murder.”

I don’t advocate banning The Hunger Games or advising readers to avoid it, but I do invite everyone to examine what it is that makes you want to turn the page.

(Photo by michi003)

Essay Writing Can Feel Like Playing Pretend

Imagine being asked to coach an Olympic swimming team. Even though you’ve taken swimming classes at the local Y and have splashed around a pool with your friends, you don’t know the first thing about Olympic-level swimming. That’s how many students feel when they’re asked to write an essay.

I already know from my experience reading student papers that students have trouble writing introductions for academic essays because they rarely have to worry about catching a reader’s attention. These students know that the teacher has to read their papers, so why bother trying to interest the teacher in the subject? After all, I’m getting paid to read their work.

To reawaken the students, I ask them to imagine leaving their essays on an empty seat of a train or a bus. Would someone who picks up the essay want to keep reading past the first sentence? Or would the stranger toss it aside?

The fact that an instructor is usually the only person reading a student’s essay can cause other problems for the student. Consider this idea: some students have difficulty writing academic papers because they have trouble assuming an expert tone when they know the person or people reading the papers is more expert than they are. In the writing center where I work, I overheard two colleagues discussing this theory, and it kind of blew my mind.

Imagine being asked to coach an Olympic swimming team. Even though you’ve taken swimming classes at the local Y and have splashed around a pool with your friends, you don’t know the first thing about Olympic-level swimming. That’s how many students feel when they’re asked to write an essay, especially in an introductory-level course where the instructor (the expert) is the audience.

I think this problem is especially magnified in courses that aren’t necessarily writing-focused – like History, English, or Psychology – but that require essay writing. In my writing classes, I allow students to assume the role of experts by giving them the chance to choose their essay topics. This way, they can enlighten me about something I don’t necessarily know. They can assume an expert tone because they are imparting knowledge from their life experience.

However, in a History course, students most likely must write about something they don’t know very well, something the instructor is teaching. The goal of a History essay, especially one in an introductory-level course, is for the students to prove their ability to make connections and draw conclusions based on the knowledge they have been given. In this case, the instructor always has the advantage.

So how can an instructor who requires essay writing help his or her students feel less disadvantaged and discouraged before they even start writing? One idea is for the instructor to assign an essay topic that allows the students to make connections between the subject matter and their lives. Every student comes with his or her own body of knowledge and life experience, and allowing the student to share this singular wisdom encourages ownership and authoritativeness.

An instructor should also encourage creativity. If he or she can work outside the box of a five-paragraph or even a five-page essay, the instructor should invite the students to write in different forms, like stories or poems. How can the students show that they grasp concepts and ideas by expressing them through narrative? These types of assignments also require the instructor’s creativity and open-mindedness but even if they are used sparingly I believe they can help students build confidence while developing voice and style.

(Photo by Mai Le)

The Danger of Impersonal Rejection

Can you imagine a famous writer corresponding with a no-name writer through a series of hand-written letters? Can you imagine such a correspondence lasting six years and the writers never meeting? Wouldn’t it be nice for every young writer to find that much support?

Can you imagine a famous writer corresponding with a no-name writer through a series of hand-written letters? Can you imagine such a correspondence lasting six years and the writers never meeting? Recently, I asked my creative writing students to read an excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke. These 10 collected letters chronicle the correspondence between Rilke and a young, aspiring poet Franz Kappus. Rilke reads Kappus’ poetry and advises him on matters of writing, relationships, and life. Wouldn’t it be nice for every young writer to find so much support and feedback from someone considered an expert?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea that digitally sending a piece of writing to a magazine, agent, or publisher can sometimes feel like sending writing to black hole, where the writing disappears. In the post, I meditated on how this ever-growing reality affects my attitude toward submitting work, but lately I’ve been spending more time thinking about how this trend of little-to-no-feedback affects a new generation of writers: my creative writing students and other ambitious young writers all over the world.

It’s true that a writer who’s going to “make it” needs to believe in him or herself first, without seeking validation from others. Conviction in one’s own abilities has been necessary since the invention of the printing press, when writers finally had the means of being able to share their work with others. However, I think very few aspiring writers would choose to continue writing if they hadn’t received validation and confirmation from someone – preferably someone who would know – that they should pursue writing.

A writer who decides at age 16 that her dream is to become a published novelist may keep writing for the next 10, even 20, years without ever receiving any professional feedback on her work. If she’s lucky enough to be able to study writing at school or have access to writing group, she might receive feedback from peers, classmates, or instructors. By reading the work written by her peers and by other great writers, she’ll probably figure out a few things on her own.

At some point, she may decide that her manuscript is polished enough to send to agents, contests, and maybe even small presses. Her manuscript could be excellent, but she wouldn’t know if the right person doesn’t see it. Given that her manuscript most likely sits in a pile with thousands of other manuscripts, her work may never see the light of day.

On the other hand, her manuscript might need a lot of work, but how will she ever know how to improve her writing? This young woman may be an otherwise talented writer with potential, but how is she to know where to shift her focus if no one is willing to give her even a sentence worth of feedback? What is she to do when many agents send form letters that read something like this: “Your writing is great, but your manuscript isn’t quite the right project for us.” Is the manuscript really great? Or does every person receive the same letter?

I’m sure that many people would argue with me, saying that no worthwhile writer should write to please an audience or publisher. For the most part, I think this is true. But doesn’t every writer want to make his or her work accessible to some kind of audience whether an audience of one or an audience of millions?

One way for the writer to escape the powerful gatekeeper is to consider self-publishing, which doesn’t require the approval of anyone but herself. But let’s be honest: very few people will buy a self-published book (or any book for that matter) unless they hear from a friend or a trusted source that the book is worthwhile. So why would the writer go through all the hard work and put forth the money that self-publishing requires if she didn’t have at least a hint from potential readers that all the work hours and money would be wisely spent?

I fear the lack of feedback in a society that makes it easy to avoid giving feedback is actually hurting the society’s creative future. The people who want to write will find a way to keep writing, but won’t they be better served by some tether, some correspondence with the gatekeepers, the people who decide what’s worth reading and publishing?

When my students ask me about what it’s like to continue writing outside of a creative writing class, I feel terrible letting them know that they will never, beyond this semester, find the same level of feedback and encouragement. It’s true that not all writers should be encouraged, but many of the students who shouldn’t be encouraged will eventually find that out themselves or simply lose interest in the pursuit. The ones who won’t give up are the ones who may not yet be prize-winning writers, but who still have so much to learn and need to be encouraged so that they can grow into the prize-winning writers they dream of becoming.

(Photo by Terwilliger911)

5 Things You Already Do to Make Creativity a Habit

This month, GOOD Magazine is challenging its readers to make time for art on a daily basis. The editors even offer 31 suggestions for ways that readers can incorporate art into their lives. I like the suggestions, but few are geared toward creative writers.

This month, GOOD Magazine is challenging its readers to make time for art on a daily basis. The editors even offer 31 suggestions for ways that readers can incorporate art into their lives.

I like the suggestions – especially “break something (you have to destroy in order to create!)” – but many are geared toward developing creativity in the visual rather than the written, theatrical, and musical arts, to name a few.

Even though the exercises don’t necessarily require the act of writing, I still recommend that writers try some of these creative exercises. Of course, the visual arts influence literature as much as literature influences the visual arts. Why not write a poem about a painting at a museum or sketch a visual representation of a character?

When you finish the exercises from GOOD, you can explore my five ways to expand your creative writing capacity this month. The best news is that you probably already do many of these activities!

1. Create a character sketch using Pinterest. Make a new “board” named after your character and “pin” photos and links that represent your character: What hairstyle does he/she wear? How does he/she dress? How would he/she decorate a living space? What does he/she like to eat?

2. Look at a random friend’s Facebook profile and try to see how your friend’s posts could form the skeleton of a story. For the most part, your Facebook friends only share what they think best represents them. In the same way, writers only share the details they believe add to the narrative. How can you use your Facebook friend’s posts to construct a meaningful narrative?

3. Brainstorm advertising copy for your favorite products. Many beginning writers have no idea how to “sell” their stories or essays. They don’t feel the need to do so because their instructors are the only people reading their work. However, a well-crafted and catchy introductory paragraph or even a first line can make the reader want to “buy” the writing. As you use your favorite products (makeup, snacks, clothing, your car, etc.) throughout your day, think about how you would “sell” these items to a friend or even a stranger. What kind of nouns, adjective, and verbs would you use to catch a busy person’s attention?

4. Think of the most boring thing that has happened to you in a day and write a blog post about that event in a new, interesting way. If you don’t already have a blog, you could share that story with a friend or family member. Don’t apologize for the boring nature of your story. Rather, do everything you can to tell the story in a compelling way without lying.

5. Notice the people around you when you’re stuck in a particular setting like a public bus or on line at a convenience store. Observe their behaviors and interactions and then imagine how they would act differently in other circumstances or settings. We rarely think about how much setting or mood affects the way those around us behave. In the same way, beginning writers rarely devote enough attention to setting or mood. Understand the importance of setting the scene.

(Photo by Bohman)

Pen as Ninja Sword

One of my students decided to compare and contrast the way I maneuver my pen to the way a ninja brandishes a sword. I admit that I do wield a certain flourish as I click the pen top and get ready to circle-underline-correct-suggest. I don’t like to think of my pen as an attack against the student, though.

This morning in class, while I was reviewing my students’ comparison/contrast essays, one student decided to compare and contrast the way I maneuver my pen to the way a ninja brandishes a sword.

I admit that I do wield a certain flourish as I click the pen top and get ready to circle-underline-correct-suggest.

The pen is my ultimate tool. In a writing class, I can lecture, provide examples, and assign exercises, but most of the learning takes place when I sit beside a student and show him or her how an existing piece of writing could be improved. This doesn’t mean editing the paper for the student but rather simply highlighting places where he or she can focus more attention.

I don’t like to think of my pen as an attack against the student, though. When I click my pen top, the student and I are entering the writing together, and we are seeking ways to slash away the errors and defend the parts of the essay that don’t need as much work. We are doing the bold work of revision, which does require a certain bravery.

The next time you have to edit your own writing, go forth with courage and confidence. Hold your pen with pride or type your keys with commanding fingers. The process may be violent and difficult, but you must remember that you are defending the English language from ignorance and laziness.

(Photo by jonathanb1989)

Writer as Astronomer: On Discovering Black Holes

The writer becomes an astronomer so focused on this new task – very different from writing – that she discovers a black hole: that place where writing disappears after it has been launched into the webosphere and captures the attention of no one.

In our age of lightning-fast file transfers and instant e-mail communication, a writer can share her writing more immediately than ever before. She can enter writing contests and pitch literary agents with just a click of a mouse. Is she missing an editor’s contact information? An instantaneous Google search will reveal exactly how she can reach any person she desires.

On one hand, this ease of sharing what we write offers great hope and promise. A writer can open her inbox and dream, Think of all the people I can potentially reach today! The possibilities are endless!

She has prepared a detailed Excel spreadsheet with the names and e-mail addresses of every person she would like to charm. She sends her writing to far corners of the world, places she’s never even visited. She waits.

The writer waits so long for responses that she begins to develop new hobbies. The writer becomes an astronomer so focused on this new task – very different from writing – that she discovers a black hole: that place where writing disappears after it has been launched into the webosphere and captures the attention of no one. The black hole occasionally captures cover letters, resumes, and Craigslist apartment inquiries. Nothing can escape. Once something has been lost there, it is lost forever.

One of the biggest challenges of being a writer today is balancing enthusiasm with realistic expectations. It’s true that ambitious writers today have more resources and potential opportunities than in previous times. But they also risk feeling ignored and like their efforts are meaningless.

Today, more than ever before, a writer writes because she enjoys it. With little promise for fame or recognition, few people willing to pay money for good writing, and plenty of competition, the writer plays a constant waiting game. She wonders if she should have pursued the sciences rather than humanities. She continues to contemplate the black hole.

Awed by the black hole’s size and power, she feels inspired. The writer writes about the black hole and, in doing so, forgets about it. The best writing is born of those who write for the love of it. Perhaps the black hole is a blessing.

(Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video)